The Virginia General Assembly is expected to give final approval this week to Gov. John N. Dalton's plan to have the state build and operate the world's largest coal export terminal, a facility designed to relieve the glut of ships that have been sitting for months in the Hampton Roads area waiting to load coal.
Two bills authorizing the Virginia Port Authority to condemn a 220-acre tract on the Elizabeth River in Portsmouth for the coal port -- estimated to cost $200 million -- and raise the money required to buy the land breezed through the state Senate last week with virtually no opposition. The House of Delegates is expected to follow suit this week.
The facility, which has avid support from Dalton, the port authority and the state's influential coal and railroad interests, would be capable of handling 27 million tons of steam coal annually, most of it bound for Europe's industrial furnaces. The project would be financed with tax-exempt revenue bonds issued by the authority and guaranteed by four coal companies.
The project is one of at least a half dozen being proposed on the East Coast that some coal industry analysts believe could lead to an overabundance of coal port facilities within the next 10 years. Nonetheless, most Virginia business and political leaders say they believe the facility is needed and that no one will build it if the state does not.
To assure the measure's passage, the administration organized a parade of high-ranking coal and railroad executives through a four-hour joint public hearing before five influential legislative committees last week to convince the lawmakers that the proposal was a sound investment. The project's chief opponents -- Portsmouth residents and city officials concerned about the proposed facility's impact -- also testified at the hearing, but their views appeared to have little impact on the lawmakers.
Late in the week, another opponent emerged -- Cox Enterprises, the Atlanta-based communications firm currently engaged in a lawsuit with the Norfolk and Western Railway over who owns the property that the state is looking to condemn.
Cox originally had planned to build a massive oil refinery on the site, on which it had purchased an option from N&W. The railway is arguing in court that cox's option has expired and that the land should revert to it.
A lobbyist for Cox, which has scaled down its plans for a refinery, told the legislators last Thursday that his company believes the dispute will be settled soon and that Cox then intends to build a coal port on part of the site.
But Dalton administration officials insist that the terminal probably will not be built unless the state does it. And even though a number of lawmakers -- including some who are Republicans and thus members of the governor's own political party -- question the propriety of the state entering the coal port business, most believe final passage a virtual certainty.
This week's business-related committee hearings in the Maryland General Assembly.: MARYLAND SENATE
Monday: Budget and Taxation Committee considers legislation on property tax and workfare, 2 p.m., Room 100, James Office Bldg.
Tuesday: Budget and Taxation Committee hearings on energy saving device loan program and Montgomery County cooperative housing corporations, 10 a.m., Room 100, James Office Bldg.